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John Devine: All eyes on Sharks’ Niemi

1305076701 30 John Devine: All eyes on Sharks Niemi

SAN JOSE — you can make all the excuses you want for the Sharks shortcomings over their past five playoff failures.

Not defensive-minded, not fast enough, not tough enough — overhyped.

The Stanley Cup playoffs boil down to one man, one position. The man between the pipes.

Goalie Antii Niemi did his job Thursday, stopping 33 shots as the Sharks opened the playoffs with a 3-2 overtime win over Los Angeles.

“I’m not thinking about the big picture,” said Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup title with the Blackhawks last year. “I’m just trying to stay focused.”

to hoist the Cup, you have to win 16 games. One is in the books after Niemi’s effort in goal and an overtime goal from Joe Pavelski.

Niemi is a game changer.

Need proof?

Just ask his teammates, who were on the opposite end up Niemi’s heroics last year when he led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years as a rookie.

“He made some huge saves tonight in overtime,” captain Joe Thornton said. “He played excellent. He’s been here before.”

Funny, Chicago didn’t want to pay the netminder this year.

“After winning the Cup, I thought I’d be back in Chicago,” Niemi said.

Instead, he’s a Shark. Niemi was brought in for this reason — to get them into the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise’s 20 seasons.

“I know I was brought here for this,” a soft-spoken Niemi said.

Niemi was brilliant on Thursday, just like he was over the team’s final 36 games of the season, leading them to a 27-5-4 record.

Players for the Sharks clearly thought highly of Niemi’s effort in the regular season, voting him the team’s Most Valuable Player.

“We love the way he competes,” forward Ryane Clowe said.

a team loaded with talent over the last five years got a piece to the puzzle it sorely needed.

Is it enough?

“It feels different this year,” third-year coach Todd McLellan said.

Evgeni Nabokov had his moments during his tenure in goal for San Jose. But he also had his mental lapses, often exhibited on the biggest stage.

“There’s not really any added pressure,” said Niemi. “I’m not trying to replace anyone.”

The Sharks aren’t bashful about riding Niemi.

“We expect big things from him,” Clowe said.

Alternating in goal the first part of the season, this became Niemi’s team in the second half of the season.

The result.

The Sharks went from last in the Pacific Division to capturing their fourth straight title, earning the No. 2 seed behind Vancouver.

The Sharks aren’t the pretty choice to reach the Stanley Cup. in fact, no one has them pegged to play for Lord Stanley.

so I will. although, they will have to play better than they did on Thursday.

“This was huge,” Niemi said. “It would have been horrible to lose in overtime at home.”

There’s a long path and a lot of barriers in front of the Sharks.

The window of opportunity could be closing on San Jose’s current cast of stars.

But I agree with McLellan. There is something different about this team’s mental makeup and attitude.

can one man in the net make that much of a difference?

Who has the ring?

John Devine can be reached at jdevine@montereyherald.com and

646-4405.

<a href="http://www.montereyherald.com/sports/ci_17854516tag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.montereyherald.com/sports/ci_17854516Fri, 15 Apr 2011 08:40:10 GMT 00:00″>John Devine: All eyes on Sharks’ Niemi

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